Alan Glynn,
The Dark Fields
(Bloomsbury, 2002)

This novel takes the form of a personal journal or testament. Its writer Eddie Spinola is holed up in a cheap out-of-the-way hotel and from the tenor of his opening words we know that he has reached bottom. However, he soon begins to tell us of his recent past, beginning from a time just before the occurrence of the events that eventually lead to his present sorry state.

Eddie was a not-very-successful writer, divorced and unhappy. A chance meeting with his former brother-in-law, Vernon, whom he had not seen in years, begins his descent. As they sit and chat about old times and Eddie's current woes, Vernon places a single pill on the table between them. It is a so-called "smart" drug (MDT), still experimental but available "on the street." Eddie picks up the pill.

MDT transforms him into a hyper-intelligent individual, but at a cost to his psyche. The cost is such that "Doctor Jekyll meets Prozac" would not be an inappropriate subtitle for the novel. Eddie never alludes to the Robert Louis Stevenson classic but often refers to feelings of drug-induced duality. For example, an early experience with the drug finds him compulsively categorizing and sub-categorizing his extensive but disorganized audio-CD collection. Finished, he begins similarly on his unkempt apartment, but later as the small dose of the drug wears off and the first signs of untidiness appear around him he realises that "I was back."

This incident is typical of the understated tone of this novel, a tone that deftly brings the reader to a realisation of what it might mean to be on such a drug. It is not an addiction in the traditional sense, but rather the drug gets Eddie "high on life." Think of the emotions and social implications associated with success, from scoring the highest on a schoolwide exam and then achieving comparable ends in the harshly competitive adult world. Eddie becomes successful with money, with women, with whatever he sets his mind to.

The drug takes Eddie forever upwards, never leaving him satisfied with any achievement, always wanting more success, more advancement. Of course there are complications; as with any illicit drug there is the question of supply and the associated criminality -- and there are side effects.

Over the years since "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde" was published (1886) it has been the subject of thousands if not millions of Sunday sermons about the evil within the human heart. The good Dr. Jekyll was, like Eddie Spinola, the victim of chemical abuse (in Jekyll's case a concoction of his own making), and Eddie, near the end, finds that his experience with MDT leads him to question the fundamental forces that drive humanity, writing " was all tinkering with brain chemistry. Maybe the reductionist view of human behaviour ... was right, maybe it was all down to molecular interaction, maybe we were just machines."

Eddie is someone who deserves our pity whatever his faults because he reveals himself to be at base a decent person who certainly does not deserve his ultimate fate. Anyone who has an interest in speculative fiction must at best enjoy, and at least be intrigued by The Dark Fields. The author, Irishman Alan Glynn, has produced a stunning first novel of depth and perception.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 11 May 2002

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